By Nabi Abdullaev and Alexander Bratersky
Federal investigators announced Tuesday that they were investigating Mayor Yury Luzhkov's powerful deputy Alexander Ryabinin on suspicion of corruption.
Ryabinin heads City Hall's Control Committee, which authorizes construction permits and land sales, and he oversees procurements and investment for the city administration.
Ryabinin is the most senior Moscow official to have been targeted by investigators since Luzhkov took the reins of the city in 1992, and political analysts said the case appeared to be an attempt by the Kremlin to unseat the mayor.
An Investigative Committee spokesman told The Moscow Times that the criminal case was opened against Ryabinin on suspicion of abuse of office Monday. Ryabinin remains free, and his legal status is that of a suspect, the spokesman said, declining further comment.
According to a statement posted on the committee's web site, Ryabinin is accused of pressuring an unidentified Moscow businessman into handing over a nonresidential property to Ryabinin's daughter. Ryabinin is suspected of threatening to block the approval of a construction project that the businessman had filed with his Control Committee, the statement said. Sale papers for the property covering more than 200 square meters in a building in central Moscow were forged, and no money was paid to the businessman, it said.
Ryabinin, 50, joined City Hall in 2005 and was appointed deputy mayor two years later. He also served on an anti-corruption commission created by Luzhkov in 2008. In June, Ryabinin was also appointed to head Moskomsintez, a company established by City Hall to buy land from developers for the city's needs.
“He has played a major role in the distribution of land plots in Moscow,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, head of the Yabloko party and a former Moscow City Duma deputy.
If charged and convicted of abuse of office, Ryabinin faces up to three years in prison.
City Hall's press service could not be reached for comment on the investigation Tuesday evening.
Luzhkov, 73, has been hit by a string of scandals over the past year, including several orchestrated by the federal government.
Last June, law enforcement officials used smuggling charges to close Europe's largest retail market, Cherkizovsky, controlled by businessman Telman Ismailov, who is believed to be close to Luzhkov.
Two months later, the head of City Hall's Advertising Committee, Vladimir Makarov, was charged with abuse of office and placed in detention for several weeks. The case against him is ongoing.
Before Ryabinin, Makarov was the highest-ranking City Hall official to come under investigation.
In October, Interior Ministry investigators conducted searches in City Hall's housing department in a fraud case.
Then President Dmitry Medvedev — apparently taking aim at Luzhkov and other veteran governors who have established authoritarian regimes in their regions — said late last year that he would not allow the governors to stay past three terms in office.
The Kremlin had no immediate comment about the investigation late Tuesday.
The crackdown against Ryabinin appears to be aimed against Luzhkov, but the mayor is extremely resilient politically and would survive this blow easily, said Stanislav Belkovsky, an independent political analyst.
Luzhkov — who doesn't belong to the current group of decision-makers brought to power by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and who mounted a strong challenge to the Kremlin in 1999 — has received such signals for years but always managed to retain his grip on power, Belkovsky said.
Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, said the Kremlin has decided that Luzhkov must leave, and negotiations were going on between him and the federal authorities on the terms of his departure.
The case against Ryabinin could represent a public manifestation in the struggle between the mayor and a Kremlin faction seeking his departure, she said.
The Moscow Times